Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Consequences Matter

CONSEQUENTIALISM IN ITS PURE FORM, that is, as an ethical theory where consequences are absolutely defining of the good, is unreasonable. Yet to hold the opposite--that consequences are absolutely irrelevant--is also error. The requirements of practical reasonableness straddle both extremes of irrationality and provide for a limited relevance of consequences, of efficiency within reason, of utility within the constraints of moral absolutes.

When one makes moral choices, one operates under a certain incumbency that the choices be efficient. In other words, our choices ought efficiently to implement the coherent plan of life or the particular value or end one has chosen. "One must not waste one's opportunities by using inefficient methods." NLNR, 111. In this limited sense, utility, efficiency, consequences are reasonably regarded as important and part and parcel of the requirements of practical reasonableness.

One would be blind to suggest that reason cannot weigh and recognize the following:

There is a wide range of contexts in which it is possible and only reasonable to calculate, measure, compare, weigh, and assess the consequences of alternative decisions. Where a choice must be made it is reasonable to prefer human good to the good of animals. where a choice must be made it is reasonable to prefer basic human goods (such as life) to merely instrumental goods such as property). Where damage is inevitable, it is reasonable to prefer stunning to wounding, wounding to maiming, maiming to death: i.e. lesser rather than greater damage to one-and-the same basic good in one-and-the-same instantiation. Where one way of participating in a human good includes both all the aspects and effects of its alternative, and more, it is reasonable to prefer that way: a remedy that both relieves pain and heals is to be preferred to the one that merely relieves pain.

NLNR, 111.

However, the requirement of efficiency is only one of other requirements of practical reasonableness. That is why it cannot be absolutized over the others. Just like all the other basic human values must be held of equal account, so also all the requirements of practical reasonableness must be held of equal account. It is for this reason that "[a]s a general strategy of moral reasoning, utilitarianism or consequentialism is irrational."* "[E]very attempt to make it [consequences] the exclusive or supreme or even the central principle of practical thinking is irrational and hence immoral." NLNR, 118.

Solon Before Croesus by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590 - 1656)

Unfortunately, most modern systems of ethics are infected by consequentialistic thought, and it follows from the fact that these theories absolutize consequences as the means for determining the good that these ethical systems are irrational. The "fundamental problem" with modern consequentialistic ethics, "is that the methodological injunction to maximize good(s) is irrational." NLNR, 113. Not only is such a program unworkable from a practical perspective (which itself ought to give one pause in adopting it), but it is fundamentally senseless, senseless, as Finnis puts it, as trying to "sum together the size of this page, the number six, and the mass of this book." NLNR, 113. The consequentialist puts himself in a situation where he is trying to measure and weigh things that cannot be measured and properly weighed and sum things that cannot be summed. In adopting consequentialism, we walk into a realm of morality as equally senseless as the realm of reality into which Alice falls into in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland.

How so?

The calculative logic demanded by consequentialism requires either (i) a single dominant temporal end or goal for man the efficiency toward which may be measured,** or, if there is no such single, dominant temporal end, (ii) a common factor of measurement of differing goals (e.g., satisfaction of desire, minimization of pain, maximization of pleasure). "But neither of these conditions obtains." NLNR, 113.

If we adopt a single temporal end for all men, if good is to be univocally understood, it is as foolish a suggestion as trying to fit men to the same Proscrustean bed. And what shall that end be? "Only an inhumane fanatic thinks that man is made to flourish in only one way or for only one purpose." NLNR, 113. When it comes to temporal ends, are we all really obliged to wear the same Mao suit? On the other hand, if any end will do, then good becomes something equivocal. Calling good "satisfaction of desire," for example, subjectivizes the notion of good to the point of irrelevancy. For example, if "satisfaction of desire" is selected as the end of man, we have no plausible means of dividing out and distinguishing the pleasure of the Marquis de Sade in his bedroom from the pleasure of St. Jerome in his study. Are these ends really alike? It is unreasonable to suggest that the pursuit of knowledge is equivalent to the pursuit of lust. In the absence of a single temporal end for all men, and in the absence of a workable solution without out a single temporal end for all men other than some subjective end, it would seem that consequentialism must look toward some sort of common measure.

If, in view of the lack of a single temporal end, we adopt some common measurement factor, we find ourselves having lost any sort of reasonable compass. Any such measure--the "greatest net good," or the "best consequences," or the "lesser evil," or the "smallest net harm," or the "greater balance of good over bad"--is fraught with problems. An ethic that builds itself on pleasure--and that would allow for pleasure's increase as reasonable even if it calls for arbitrary acts and a rejection of a comprehensive plan of life--is an ethic that is "only worthy of swine." (Mill) The substitution of minimization of pain for the maximization of pleasure or any other adaptation is equally unavailing as a standard. To measure "pleasure" and "pain" is already an impossible task, and making these measures more sophisticated or nuanced only exacerbates the calculative problem.

The most apparent problem is that there is no balance between good (however it be defined, pleasure or anything else) and evil (which would be the negative of the good). In other words, can it be said that one measure of good overcomes one measure of evil? If so, then why does evil have equal voting rights with the good? If not, what is the ratio between good and evil, and why?

There are also problems in measuring between pleasures (or between pains). If to clamber out of the "swine" factor requires distinguishing between high pleasures and low pleasures, whose values are going to make this decision? And what factor is to be used to distinguish the degrees of pleasure of the drunk with his Mogen David wine and the pleasure of the dilettante with his Domaine Romanée-Conti?

Even more problematic, how do we measure the pleasures that differ in kind, and not only in degree? How, for example, do we compare the desire for an orgasm with the desire for God? How do we compare the desire for eating caviar with the desire for progeny?

Then there is the problem of whether the vantage point ought to be individual or aggregate. Is the moral question one where I measure what is best for me, or is it rather that someone else measures what is best for all?*** Is the all to include only those that are alive when the calculus is performed? Or is it to include those that come after us?

And if we decide to select an aggregate vantage point our problems still are not over. Is our final measure the maximum amount of good (or the minimal amount of evil) regardless of distribution (overall utility)? If so, then so long as the total amount of good is maximized (or evil minimized), we can justify the enslavement of a proportion of all so long as the misery associated with the enslaved is exceeded by the pleasure of those who benefit from the enslavement. If we try to fix the problems associated with distribution (maximum average utility, or maximum amounts of good for those worst off, or, most ominously, maximum equal amounts of good for everyone), the consequentialist runs into a conundrum: "[T]here is no consequentialist reason for preferring any particular one of the eligible specifications. The ambition to maximize goods logically cannot be a sufficient principle of practical reasoning."****

Moreover, whether minimization of some factor or maximization of another factor is selected, the calculus to be performed is--short of some sort of divine intellect--impossible to cipher for even the smallest individual act. The alternative options to any particular choice are potentially innumerable. How is one to measure each of these and weigh them against each other? Where are we to begin? And where are we to end? "A genuine consequentialist assessment of alternative possiblities could never end, and could begin anywhere. So it should never begin anywhere." NLNR, 117.

Who, for example, can predict what the consequences are, under any measure of good, for using artificial contraception which prevents a certain child from having been born? What would that child (or that child's child or that child's child's child) have contributed to the happiness or pleasure of the mother when a mother (or a grandmother, or a great grandmother) or to the world at large is impossible to say. We are sort of like Croesus before Solon: we cannot know whether one is happy until one is dead, and one cannot know whether what one has done is right until all consequences of a choice have rippled through the course of history until the end of time, which will happen long after the actor confronted with the choice has made his decision.

Thus, it appears that in both practice and theory, consequentialism as a moral theory is found wanting. "In short, no determinate meaning can be found for the term 'good' that would allow any commensurating and calculus of good to be made in order to settle those basic questions of practical reason which we call 'moral' questions." NLNR, 115. The basic human goods--life, knowledge, play, aesthetic pleasure, friendship, religion, and practical reasonableness--are objectively incommensurable, and so any ethical theory must operate with this obvious impediment. Consequentialism's continuing efforts to measure and weigh what is unmeasurable and unweighable are in vain. The theory is fundamentally senseless.

The Finnisian proposal does not require commensurating the incommensurable. Adopting a plan of life in light of the multiple human values or goods is not measuring the immeasurable:
[O]ne can adopt a set of commitments that will bring the basic values into a relation with each other sufficient to enable one to choose projects and, in some cases, to undertake a cost-benefit analysis (or preference-maximizing or other like analysis) with some prospect of a determinate 'best solution'. But the adoption of a set of commitments, by and individual or a society, is nothing like carrying out a calculus of commensurable goods, though it should be controlled by all the rational requirements . . . and so is far from being blind, arbitrary, directionless, or indiscriminate.
NLNR, 115.

*The issue of consequentialism has been treated at some depth replying in particular on the work of Professor Oderberg. See Consequentialism and Natural Law.
**I say "temporal" because if God is said to be the single, well-defined end of man, it is not sufficient to answer the moral question in regard to the temporal unless the glory of God or the end of friendship with God can only be manifested in one way. But since the glory or love of God may be expressed in countless ways, through "inexhaustibly man life-plans," it follows that God as man's last end is not an adequate common goal sufficient to build a consequentialist ethic. Besides, there is no consequentialist ethicist that would hold God to be man's final end. If there were, then the he would also recognize the relative nature of consequential thought and would recognize the existence of moral absolutes.
***"Jeremy Bentham oscillated and equivocated for sixty years about whether his utilitarianism was to maximize his own happiness or the happiness of 'everbody'." NLNR, 116. Maybe his mummified head is still oscillating and equivocating about it.
****Which is to say that it is necessary, but not sufficient. The other elements of practical reasonableness need to be part of the application of practical reasonableness. Efficiency (utility) is only one necessary but not sufficient prong of a multi-pronged approach, each of which other prongs are necessary but not sufficient alone or in partial aggregation. All prongs must act together to yield practical reasonableness in its fullness which, in its fullness, is both necessary and sufficient.

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